Sidsel Robards: Making NYC’s Rooftops Sustainably Green

How a Danish activist brought greenhouses to the Big Apple

Imagine greenhouses on top of buildings or converted classrooms with the sound of drifting water from a fish tank, green plants, arugula, rainwater catchment systems and, last but not least, smiling children. That is what NY Sun Works, a New York non-profit organization, is building atop New York-area schools.

One of NY Sun Work’s greenhouses. Photo: www.nysunworks.org

In 2007, NY Sun Works built their first urban farm with the eventual aim of introducing inner-city children to locally-grown and sustainable foods. Today, the project is called the Greenhouse Project Initiative. By using hydroponic farming technology, schoolchildren at all ages learn about farming, nutrition, climate change, sustainability and biodiversity. With some 60 established greenhouses in varying neighborhoods around the city ( and ten more to be added by September 2017), the greenhouses look to provide a hands-on experience for school children who can follow the development of plants from seed to table.

Sidsel Robards is the co-founder of the Greenhouse Project. Today, she is the one talking to new school partners on developing their labs and securing funding. Furthermore, she is the PR liaison for NY Sun Works and oversees fundraising events. She is also the Chair of NY Sun Works’ Board of Directors.

Sidsel Robards, Danish-American and Director of Development and Events at NY Sun Works. Photo: www.nysunworks.org

Sidsel Robards arrived in the U.S from Denmark for the first time in 1996, working as a model. She met her American husband and ended up staying in the States.

How did The Greenhouse Project begin?
The project began after a visit to The Science barge - NY Sun Works’ first project. The Barge was a prototype of a sustainable urban farm, and we thought it would make a fantastic science labs. It was powered by solar
and wind, catching rain water to grow carbon neutral hydroponic crops. At the time, we were parents at a public school, and we partnered with NY Sun Works to create a greenhouse lab on the roof of the school, based on the design of the science barge.

What are the difficulties that NY Sun Works are trying to help solve?
Science education is lacking in many schools yet science and innovation will be key to solving some of our issues around climate and a growing population. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that it is human
behavior that is causing a lot of the current climate issues, and a deeper knowledge around science and sustainability will help guide future generations in their daily decisions whether they become scientists, artists, chefs, teachers, farmers, business owners or policymakers. We work with all kinds of schools in many different neighborhoods throughout the 5 Boroughs of NYC and Northern New Jersey. Their common theme is that they have a real interest in improving their science, sustainability and health programming. Their communities might look different in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds. As an example, some might be in food deserts where our programming will take a different meaning in terms of food justice issues but the focus is still teaching science and sustainability through the lens of urban agriculture.
 
How does The Greenhouse Project pose as a solution to these difficulties?
The Greenhouse Project is elevating the way sciences is taught in K through 12th grade schools by connecting science to social studies. Our program is threefold: We design, build and maintain hydroponic greenhouse classrooms in urban schools. We teach teachers and implement specialized K-12th grade
Science + Sustainability curriculum. We connect by supporting school community events and host an annual youth conference for our partner schools. Our curriculum covers the mandated science standards and focuses on hands-on project based lessons all through the lens of urban agriculture. Climate change and environmental concerns can be very difficult to address with students because of the enormity of the situation. Teaching science through the lens of food systems makes it much easier to address issues like sustainability and climate to younger students. And the great by-product is lots of fresh crops that we can then use for community engagement events like harvest celebrations, cooking demos, farmstands, donations to people in need like seniors or food pantries.

Is there an aspect of your Danish values that you bring to your work?
I would say that Danes have deeply rooted values around social justice, climate and sustainability issues and I grew up with a strong connection to nature. I personally became involved in improving science sustainability and climate education when it became clear to me that my husband and I would be raising our boys in America. Raising your children in a different culture makes you acutely aware of things that are different and I felt these were topics were missing greatly in my boys’ education and somewhat in our daily
lives at the time. On the other hand, I think something amazing about America is that we were able to start this project and make a significant change in the education of so many students. We were essentially stay at
home mothers (and immigrants) and I personally had no educational background in this field. I doubt that could have worked in Denmark, but here in America people are more inclined to look at the idea and vision
instead of what your credentials might be.

Inside one of the greenhouses. Photo: www.nysunworks.org

From the beginning of the project until today, how would you say that it has helped kids in disenfranchised neighbourhoods? 
We see a lot of changes after partnering with schools. First and foremost, a big increase in interest in science. The students become super engaged and many realize that science is something that they can use in their everyday life, and that their behavior and actions make a real difference. We see a huge spike in school wide recycling and energy efficiency efforts as well as green teams and healthy eating initiatives. Some schools also report better attendance rates but that is not something we have officially measured.
What we do know from her recently completed assessment of our K through fifth grade programming is that students who receive our programming are more likely to score higher on their tests. In fact, 4th graders scored almost a whole grade higher than those without NY Sun Works programming.
 
What does the future hold for NY Sun Works?
When we first started, we used to joke around that we would build 100 labs by 2020. When the school year starts this September we will have built 70 labs, and have roughly 10 more in development. Therefore, we might be closer to retirement than expected! In all seriousness… We are currently just focused on schools in New York City and Northern New Jersey, but have had a lot of interest from school both across the USA and abroad. We’re obviously thrilled about the interest and we are currently looking at a few ways we might be able to expand while keeping the quality of what our organization offers intact. This fall we will be launching an online platform for teachers that will house all things NY Sun Works curriculum related. It will have downloadable lessons, field trip guides, partnership opportunities, best practices and training videos. We feel this will be a great tool that will enable us to work with more schools. Most important for us though is continue to empower principals and teachers so we can make sure our programming is successfully implemented, and that they broaden what the students learn in their Greenhouse Project Classrooms into the school community as a whole.


Silke Baumann is the Press, Culture & Public Diplomacy Intern at Denmark In NY.

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